Friday, April 25, 2008

Femininity and Masculinity: Fluid gender identity in Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2

Quentin Tarantino’s double movie Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 tells the story of a female assassin’s quest for revenge against those who betrayed her. Beatrix Kiddo AKA The Bride was gunned down at her wedding rehearsal by the Dead Viper Assassination Squad, of which she was once a part of. Her former love and master, Bill, shot the pregnant bride in the head, putting her in a coma for four years. Upon awaking from her coma, she set out on a mission to kill each member of the squad, most importantly of all, Bill. On the surface, the text appears feminist, featuring a powerful female in an unexpected, physically demanding role. On looking further, the extreme violence and theme of pregnancy and sacrifice seem to contradict feminism. However, this paper will attempt to sort through the contradictions. I will argue that the character of Beatrix Kiddo embodies a feminist interpretation of femininity in her complexity and fluidity. She displays an ability to perform both feminine and masculine roles in her behavior, dress, and interactions with other characters, resulting in an evolving, complicated identity and a characterization that is ultimately feminist.

In attempting to define femininity and masculinity, I realized I was making the mistake of giving validity to words which are based on abstract stereotypes rather than reality. Gender stereotypes are traditionally defined as a presence or absence of specific personality traits (Deaux, 290). In a report that based on an extensive investigation in 30 different nations William and Best (1982) found, “men are typically viewed as stronger, more active, and higher in achievement autonomy and aggression. Women are weaker, less active, and more concerned with affiliation, nurturance, and deference” (Deaux, 291). The problem with these stereotypes is that fail to account for fluidity and variation in behavior given a situation, as well as the many exceptions in which a man or woman doesn’t fit the stereotype. Deaux points out that the two features that may be most influential in determining male or female gender are the male’s larger size and greater strength and the female’s ability to give birth. Aside from these two signifiers, the other traits are not based on concrete evidence. She is careful to point out that there is “overlap in virtually all behaviors” associated with masculinity and femininity, and that the concepts are “multidimensional” and “inherently flexible…not explanations but simply labels” (300, 301). In her article Masculine Femininities/Feminine Masculinities: power, identiy, and gender, Carrie Paechter agrees,
“Kessler and McKenna’s (1978) classic study suggests that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are examples of what is referred to in philosophy as a ‘cluster concept’: one that is not amenable to straightforward definition but is recognized through a cluster of attributes, some of which are more salient than others, but which may not all be present. The gender binary, in consequence, only operates at the level of the label” (258).
I think it is important to be skeptical of the terms “male” and “female.” I understand the necessity of having language to discuss disparities between biological sexes, but ascribing a set of characteristics to the terms is an act of stereotyping.

Furthermore, positioning the terms masculine and feminine as opposites creates a one-dimensional concept that inhibits the understanding of gender identity. As Deaux points out, “Most often, the general concepts of masculinity and femininity are viewed in terms of opposition, with the presence of one set of characteristics implying the absence of the other” (292). The terms then become part of the gender binary, establishing two rigid categories under which one must fall, failing to account for the disparities, the gray areas, and the overlap that occurs in an individual’s identity. How we behave as masculine and feminine varies with time, place, and circumstance (Paechter, 259). Furthermore, femininity and masculinity are not as much inherent qualities in an individual as a position one occupies in relation to a situation (Haskell, 89). Simone de Beauvoir writes:
“In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as indicated by that common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limited criteria, without reciprocity” (1).
If women are defined in relation to man, the conclusion would be that to be feminine is to be lacking masculine qualities; the terms themselves then become an act of subordination. Gender is penetrable, evolving, and inconsistent. While language is important for discussion purposes, it constrains our concept of gender because it compulsively labels and categorizes. Therefore, a feminist definition of gender wouldn’t be a definition at all- it would allow the individual to determine their own gender identity.

The Kill Bill movies present a unique example of the fluidity of gender identity in the heroine, Beatrix Kiddo. Throughout the film, she occupies the roles of deadly assassin and mother. Her physical strength and aggressiveness are stereotypically masculine, while her role as a mother is inherently feminine. Both roles she assumes are emphasized as natural. Bill, in the final scene of the movie, calls her a “natural born killer,” which is interesting because men are the ones typically seen as “natural” predators. On the other hand, despite being a killer, Beatrix is gentle and affectionate with her daughter when they are reunited in the final scene. Classifying Beatrix Kiddo as either masculine or feminine is impossible; she defies the gender binary. In this way Quentin Tarantino, the writer and director of the film, and Uma Thurman, the actress who portrays her, develop a characterization of Beatrix Kiddo that is feminist in its gender ambiguity.

Beatrix Kiddo’s appearance changes and evolves constantly throughout the movie. In the opening scene of both Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2, she is bloody, dirty, and sweaty, showing obvious pain. While Uma Thurman is physically attractive, she is also unafraid to be “ugly.” In the scene where she awakes from her coma to realize that she has lost the baby she was pregnant with, she shows the kind of emotional turmoil that is unpleasant to view. It is a humanizing moment, one which the character becomes less of a cartoon and more of a complex individual. Also, in the second installment, we see Beatrix Kiddo as a beautiful and obviously pregnant bride prior to the wedding massacre. Here she is the ultimate stereotype of femininity; she is wearing a soft, white dress and is glowingly pregnant. Later, she dons a yellow, androgynous jumpsuit she when she initiates her own massacre of one of her nemesis O-Ren’s entire entourage. The final scene is interesting to me because she finally arrives at her destination where she is to kill Bill once and for all, and she is wearing a long, flowing skirt. It seems at the end of the journey she has come into her identity and isn’t donning a costume to assume the role of Beatrix the masculine female to be an intimidating warrior.

There are some actions Beatrix takes that are not in sync with feminist thought and could be interpreted as stereotypical. The largest, in my opinion, is the fact that the very day she found out her pregnancy, she abandoned her life as a hired assassin and moved to a small town to marry, work in a used record store with her husband, and raise her child. This was a decision, when confronted by Bill in the final scene, she admits she did not think would work. In what her critique of women’s films of the 1930s and 40s, Molly Haskell describes the theme of sacrifice, in which a woman must sacrifice herself for her children, and the film “may end happily, with the wife/mother reclaiming her husband/child when her rival dies” (Haskell, 24). She elaborates on her criticism, calling a woman “consumed by her maternal zeal” a mainstay of “American culture and middle class marriage,” resulting in a “conviction that children are the reason for getting married” (Haskell, 27). For a film that was made about 60 years after the films Haskell describes, the subject matter is strikingly similar. Beatrix gives up her independent identity after, as she says, “the strip turned blue” on her pregnancy test. The decision is disappointingly cliché, but it is only the beginning of the Bride’s story and therefore part of her evolution. Her adherence to the stereotypical female role in this situation and the rejecting of it further in the movie is additional evidence of the flexibility of her gender identity.

In addition, via flashbacks, we see that Beatrix wasn’t always an independent agent. Bill was not only her lover, but also her “master.” He had her trained by Pai Mei, the most overtly misogynist character in the entire film. She is put through intense physical torture under his tutelage, but ultimately she becomes stronger. As a result of his training, she was not only able to escape being buried alive, but was also finally able to defeat Bill in the final scene, using a kung fu maneuver Pai Mei taught her. Beatrix evolved from a subordinate identity to an independent identity, which contrasts the vast majority of films featuring females that go from single to married.

Furthermore, through her aggression, physical prowess, and ability to forgo emotion for the sake of rationality she embodies characteristics generally thought of as masculine. For example, in the scene in which she fights Vernita Green in her suburban home Beatrix explicitly says, “Its mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack. Not rationality.” Rationality, thought to be a male trait, is the one trait she owns up to, dismissing the typically feminine virtues of compassion and mercy. By distancing herself from stereotypical femininity she is claiming power and concurrently rejecting the disempowerment that comes from positioning oneself as female (Paechter, 257). She not only verbally rejects femininity, she goes on to murder countless men and women while maintaining level-headedness, agility, and composure. In Simone de Beauvoir’s introduction Woman as Other she writes that women “have gained only what men have been willing to grant; they have taken nothing, they have only received.” In her life before she awoke from her coma, Beatrix lives up to de Beauvoir’s assertion. She received training only when Pai Mei acquiesced, she lost her life while in a coma for four years where she was repeatedly raped, and her child was literally taken out of her stomach. After awaking from her coma, she murders her abusers and takes their vehicle, she gets her revenge by literally taking the lives of her enemies, and she eventually takes back her daughter from Bill. In her journey throughout the two films, Beatrix acquires everything important and valuable to her by taking- not receiving- from men.

The parts where the fluidity of her gender identity is most evident are in the ways she moves between masculine and feminine roles within the same interactions.For example, upon first encountering Hatori Honso, the man she wished to make her a priceless samurai sword, she first pretends to be naïve to Japanese language, which she speaks fluently, and she giggles timidly, obviously attempting to charm him. When he has warmed to her, she abandons the act and proceeds to speak to him in Japanese and holds steady eye contact, assertively telling him she wants him to make her a sword for nothing in return. The example illustrates the performance aspect of gender roles, and the ease with which she executes performing them to get what she wants shows that her identity is complicated. She executes a similar strategy with Esteban Vallejo, a father figure of Bill’s and a pimp, by complimenting him and laughing coyly at his jokes, playing a feminine role until him until she feels confident to get what she wants out of him- Bill’s location. She manages to get both the sword and Bill’s location through performing gender roles.
I think it is also worth noting that Quentin Tarantino was raised by a strong, independent woman without his father present (Rich, 1). That would likely color the way he views strong women in a favorable way. In an interview, Tarantino has also said “This movie does not take place in the universe that we live in. In this world women are not the weaker sex. They have exactly the same predatory hunting instincts as the men, the same drive to kill or be killed.” This could be taken as anti-feminist in that he is inferring that in the “real world” women are the weaker sex. On the other hand, he could be implying that there is a perception that women are the weaker sex, which is true. While many feminists cry misogyny when they see the treatment of Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill, I would find it strange if there was no violence against her. She is, after all, a deadly assassin on a revenge mission, and she is involved in multiple battles with both men and women. In addition, from Reservoir Dogs to Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s films are known for their excessive violence, and Kill Bill is no exception. Unrealistic as the film may be, presenting a strong, powerful, multi-faceted female lead in a scenario in which she triumphs without the help of any man is, in my opinion, a feminist characterization, whether or not Tarantino identifies as a feminist.

If masculinity and femininity in a feminist perspective are intertwined, flexible, and variable, then the characterization of Beatrix Kiddo’s gender identity is feminist. She doesn’t conform to a specific way of dressing, though she is most recognizable in her androgynous jumpsuit. Her behavior ranges from stereotypically feminine as a blushing bride, to a caricature of masculinity as a sword-wielding assassin. In interactions she displays competency in acting out each role- female when she wants to charm men and male when she wants to intimidate aggressors. Her gender identity operates independent of her biology and sexual orientation. It is ambiguous and defies labels and binaries, thus making the media text of Kill Bill, with regards to Beatrix Kiddo, essentially feminist.

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